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The Top Ten Films of the 1990s

Hypocrisy ran rampant, foreign relations continued their descent through the sewer pipe and then there was the Macarena, but American corruption in the 1990s became well, just maybe, boring. By the time Roger & Me broke, it seemed like old news that the upper 1% owned everything. This is, amongst other reasons, why the great films of the ’90s seemed to be steeped in the darker side of America rather than having some intimations of uncovering it. For ’90s cinema, there was less need to drain the black blood and a greater want to offer almost microscopic shimmers of hope in a world of pitch-black uncertainty. In any case, the films presented here would lay the groundwork for even darker and more paranoid fare that would come in the ’00s. More of that later; for now, the 1990s:

1. Goodfellas – Martin Scorsese takes all the mafia mythos and amplifies them exponentially, blending blistering humor and startling violence to create a funny, gory, and indelible 150 minutes. The sort-of-true story of mobster Henry Hill harnesses all of Scorsese’s immense talent and pairs it both with an A-list cast and Nick Pileggi’s outrageous screenplay. The pathologically volatile Tommy DeVito, brilliantly played by Joe Pesci in an Oscar-winning performance, is one of cinema history’s most memorable characters, while Robert De Niro hits subtler note as the dangerous Jimmy Conway. Everyone has a favorite scene, but the key moment sees Scorsese’s own unscripted mother bust the balls of a table full of hoodlums while simultaneously feeding them a big Italian dinner; the corruption implicit in the American family never seemed so enjoyable and excusable. DW

2. Pulp Fiction – We already knew Quentin Tarantino could twist a genre: Reservoir Dogs was a fascinating skip-step away from the traditional heist picture. With Pulp Fiction, he takes classic pulp genres (thus the title), shreds, updates, and rewrites them, with a confident level of exuberance and sparkling originality. Every tale — maybe even every ten minutes of the film — holds an unexpected laugh, a hidden gem of plot, a genius take on the art of dialogue. So effective and surprisingly popular, Pulp Fiction launched countless attempts at ensemble cast coolness, with nearly all seeming pale, limp, and derivative. Tarantino tinkered with conversation and narrative structure in Dogs; here he molds and refines them like a Renaissance artist creating a masterpiece. NS

3. Fargo – In a career of complex, dazzling highs and near-unbearable lows, it doesn’t get much better for the Coen brothers than Fargo. The movie blends oddball humor with hard-boiled crime drama, down-home smiles with spontaneous bursts of violence — juicy dichotomies that the Coens relish. Lead by Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance as Marge Gunderson, the characters — from Steve Buscemi’s ratfink criminal to William H. Macy’s milquetoast schemer — are perfectly tuned and now seem imprinted on our collective cinematic memory. With a plot that is both riveting and intrinsically American, the filmmakers fuse all their magnum talents together and find a startling tone all their own, between lunacy and dread, joy and fear; it’s an undeniable work of genius. JMac

4. The Silence of the Lambs The Silence of the Lambs pitches the psychological thriller as a vision of the American nocturne; a trashy tabloid story given depth, realist tempo, and devastating nuance by director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ bestseller. There is nothing on screen that isn’t expertly calibrated to chill your blood, whether it be Howard Shore’s magnificently unsettling score or Tak Fujimoto’s brilliant camerawork. And then there are the performances: Anthony Hopkins’ perfectly tailored gentleman cannibal, Jodie Foster’s intelligent-yet-naïve student agent, and Ted Levine’s sensationally perverse skin-collecting creature are all blazingly original portrayals. The intensity and passion of these performances give Silence of the Lambs a bewitching authenticity; something that it’s myriad of lesser imitators has never bothered to duplicate. Now put the lotion in the basket. CC

5. Three Kings – The thrill of David O. Russell’s post-war flick Three Kings hits you with the impact of a bullet like few other films in memory. A vividly engaging experience, the film’s tone begins as incisive cynicism and closes with radiating pulses of heartbreak and hope. In the wake of the Gulf War, four soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze — all pitch-perfect) set out to steal millions in gold bullion from one of Saddam’s bunkers; a final ‘F-you’ to the war that kept them away from home. Along the way, however, they discover something unforeseen — humanity. Russell has never been sharper with his pen or with his camera; the film vibrates with his particular, peculiar intensity. Ten years on
, Three Kings remains a visually breathtaking, politically angry, and emotionally potent experience. JMac

6. Groundhog Day – After their archetypal ’80s mainstream comedies (Stripes, Ghostbusters), Bill Murray and Harold Ramis changed direction with this clever, surprisingly sweet romantic comedy. Screenwriter/director Ramis used the quirky premise of Groundhog Day — Murray as a cynical jerk thrown into a time warp where he must endure the same day over and over until eternity, or until he gets it right — to carry a thoughtful message about the emptiness of narcissism and the importance of aspiration. The result is one of the best films of the ’90s, and definitely the only rom-com we could watch over and over until eternity. DB

7. Miller’s Crossing – At first considered a second-tier work from the Coens, this darkly funny gangster saga has quietly ascended the ranks in esteem since its release. The story centers on Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a shadowy, smart hood who decides to play both sides of an increasingly vicious Prohibition gang war — embodied by Albert Finney and Coen axiom Jon Polito. The intricate plotting gives it a slightly mechanistic feel, counterbalanced by Barry Sonnenfeld’s gorgeous cinematography and the Coens’ expectedly succulent dialogue. The end result has the air of an elegant puzzle box, something truly unique in a genre too often buried beneath excessive cliché. RV

8. Quiz Show – Robert Redford’s masterful exploration of the 1958 Twenty One scandal involving a well-groomed, covertly informed WASP (Ralph Fiennes) usurping a sweaty Jewish neurotic from the Bronx (John Turturro) is further proof that the only thing better than a winner is a winner with a good smile. But the meat of Redford’s film focuses on Rob Morrow’s Dick Goodwin and his ultimately innocuous investigation into the ethics of television; which is to say that there are none. Redford’s unparalleled masterpiece speaks directly to the power of myth and the medium in its ability to influence and warp the public’s notion of the truth. ‘They just wanted to see the money,’ says a bigwig sponsor, and though physical prowess has long-since dominated intellect, we still tune in to see our perfect reflections winning, unencumbered by any worry but the whiteness of their teeth. CC

9. L.A. Confidential – That people mention Curtis Hanson’s 1997 adaptation of the James Ellroy novel in the same breath as Chinatown speaks to how potent a piece of neo-noir it remains. Its vision of post-war Los Angeles stresses the façade of glitz and glamour hiding a grotesque reality beneath. Nowhere is this more evident than in the police department, where three cops with very different modi operandi open a Pandora’s Box that leads them deep into the City of Angels’ pitch-black heart. Titanic was the name on everyone’s lips that year, but in the ensuing decade has proven that the real action is elsewhere: Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush. RV

10. My Own Private Idaho – Gus Van Sant’s most visual, melancholic tale of young street punks tells of narcoleptic teen hustler Mike Waters (the late, great River Phoenix) whose frequent fugue states lead to strange and sometimes beautiful hallucinations of a world far away from Portland; a world he finds in Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), a rich young Portlander who’s slumming for fun. Mike’s tentative, touching, and ultimately unrequited love for Scott is almost too painful to bear. They eventually separate, with Scott ending up in a thrilling, detouring rendition of Henry IV, complete with a street-wise, homeless Falstaff. An incredible exercise in imagination and creativity and a true ‘indie;’ destined to be snubbed by Oscar but exalted at the Independent Spirit Awards. DW

norable Mentions (Alphabetical):
All About My Mother
Being John Malkovich
The Big Lebowski
Dazed and Confused
Saving Private Ryan
The Sweet Hereafter
The Thin Red Line

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